It’s that time of year again. The weather is warming up, and with it (hopefully) there will be more sunshine. Soon we will all be itching to be outside basking in its warmth. Time to get out the sunscreen, right? Well, maybe. Depends on what’s in your sunscreen brand.
But sunscreen is not the only answer, so next month we will be looking at how to develop sun protection from the inside out! (That’s right, food that provides natural skin protection!)
There has been a lot in the news lately about the safety of sunscreen. You might be thinking, “Sunscreen is good for us! We need to protect ourselves from the damaging UV rays of the sun.” And that is true. We now know that that as beneficial as the sun is to our health (it helps us manufacture Vitamin D, a crucial hormone in the body), it is also the leading cause of skin cancer. Continuous sun exposure can cause basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer, while episodes of severe sunburns, usually before age 18, can cause melanoma later in life. 1
So what is a health-conscious person to do? Plenty.
We can protect ourselves from the sun both inside and out! Let’s take a look at what we can put on our skin to shield us from the damaging rays of the sun.
Tips on Using Sunscreen
One way to protect your skin from sun damage is to “wear” sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB rays,) has a sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or higher, and is water resistant.
Recently though, there has been a lot of discussion over the safety of the chemicals being used in these products.
How do you know which sunscreen to choose?
With so many brands of sunscreen available in the marketplace these days, the selection can be overwhelming. The good news is the EWG (Environmental Working Group) has put out its Annual Sunscreen Guide that ranks hundreds of sunscreens based on their ingredients and effectiveness. The EWG is a an American environmental organization that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability.
Here are some of the criteria EWG used in evaluating the many different brands of sunscreen, and tips on what you should be looking for (or avoiding) when you are buying your next lotion.
What to look for (or avoid) in your sunscreen.
1. More does NOT necessarily mean better.
According to EWG, “high-SPF products tempt people to apply too little sunscreen and stay in the sun too long.” The FDA calls higher SPF values “inherently misleading.”
Here is what EWG found when it investigated higher-SPF brands.
- Higher-rated SPF sunscreens provide negligible amounts of increased protection, and even when used correctly, those lotions with SPF protection between 30-50 adequately protected the user, even those with sensitive skin. Read more.
- Higher SPF formulas may be better at protecting the user from harmful UVB rays, but they are worse at protecting against damaging UVA rays; falsely leading the user believe he is totally protected from cancer-causing rays. Currently, U.S. FDA regulations prevent manufacturers from using additives to prevent this damage. As a note, European companies have no such restrictions; thus, European brands are more effective at guarding against UVA rays and cancer. (See more below.)
- How thickly a lotion is applied to the skin, greatly affects its ability to block the sun’s rays. The greater the SPF; the greater the discrepancy in effectiveness. It is recommended that you use a shot glass worth of lotion for the entire body. I am not sure I would pass that test!
2. Vitamin A is a common sunscreen additive, but it may speed the development of skin cancer.
EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions that contain vitamin A, also known as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinol. Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant used to combat skin aging, but does not protect it from the sun. In fact, studies by federal government scientists indicate that when used topically in the presence of sunlight, it may trigger development of skin tumors and lesions.
3. Avoid spray on sunscreens.
Yes, I know it is “soo convenient.” But they are too easy to inhale.
The FDA is still investigating the potential health risks of inhaling the spray from aerosol sunscreens, but experts fear the inhaled mist might trigger allergies, asthma and other concerns.
In an interview with Global News, Dr. Asif Pirani, a Toronto-based plastic surgeon, stated titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the primary concerns. He stated “health officials are still learning about the potential carcinogenic and developmental risks that could be at play. Inhaling these ingredients could also irritate people with asthma.” 2
So opt for a lotion or gel, especially if using on or near your face. If you do choose to use a spray, always make sure the wind is blowing the spray away from you (and not on to your fellow sun bathers!) Or, spray the sunscreen onto your hands and then rub it on.
Nearly every sunscreen sold in the U.S. claims to offer “broad spectrum” protection, but the truth is they are better at blocking some rays (UVB) more than others (UVA.)
In Europe, sunscreen manufacturers are allowed to formulate their products with chemicals that offer stronger protection from these UVA rays. By contrast, the FDA has not approved these chemicals for use in the US. For this reason, the products sold in the US offer less “broad” protection against sun damage. Read more from EWG report.
5. Avoid oxybenzone as an ingredient.
The chemicals in sunscreens are there to absorb the sun’s radiation, but some ingredients can block or mimic hormones, or aggravate sensitive skin.
A chemical of concern is oxybenzone, which has been linked to elevated estrogen levels, endometriosis and allergic reactions. This is especially of concern because sunscreen is made to be applied to large portions of the body, several times per day. Many of these potentially dangerous ingredients have not been recently re-evaluated by the FDA.Find out more about oxybenzone.
6. If you avoid sun, check your vitamin D levels.
As you may know, sunshine causes the body to produce vitamin D, but sunscreen blocks the production of this important hormone that strengthens bones and the immune system, and reduces risks of many cancers.
Many individuals, especially those with darker skin tones, can’t or shouldn’t rely on the sun for vitamin D. It is always a good idea to get your vitamin D levels checked by your doctor, who might recommend you take a supplement.
“Best-Rated” Brands according to EWG
EWG gave a #1 rating to 177 brands of beach and sports sunscreens.
If you would like to see all 253 items that were rated, or read more about the EWG findings, visit their website here.
EWG Top 8 #1-Rated Drugstore Brands
Note: Not surprisingly, most of the top picks are specially formulated for babies. That makes sense, since you don’t want to be putting harsh chemicals on a baby’s sensitive skin. In general now, I buy sunscreens for myself that are formulated for babies!
For more information on these products and their ranking, see EWG article here.
Those items marked with an * can be found at Walgreens.
- *Aveeno Baby continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion, Sunscreen, SPF 50
- *Babyganics Mineral-Based Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50+ Walgreens
- Bare Republic Clearscreen Sunscreen Gel, Sport, SPF 30
- Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Baby, SPF 50
- *Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Baby, SPF 30+
- *CeraVe Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 45
- *Goddess Garden Organics Facial Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- *Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 50
Now you know how to purchase a better sunscreen!
But, a sunscreen is only good if you use it! So make sure you apply it while you are still indoors, so it has time to dry. If I know I am going to be outdoors for the day, I like to apply it after getting out of the shower. This way I don’t miss any spots and don’t have to worry about stains by accidentally smearing some on my clothes!
Now get out there and enjoy the sunny day!
Yours in Health,
PS Any comments on what sunscreen you like to use? Leave us a note below. We'd love to hear from you!